I had the chance to visit Doha and sit down with the internationally renowned writer, critic and curator, Francesco Bonami to talk about art in the Middle East, and curating ‘Relics’, Damien Hirst’s latest exhibition, which took place in Qatar as part of a series of cultural initiatives organized by Qatar Museum Authority.
What was your experience like curating this Damien Hirst exhibition in Qatar?
I have known Damien since 1992, so we go back a long time. Since we have a friendship, this exhibition was more of a dialogue and a collaboration. When an artist does a big show like this, they have a pretty good idea what they want. The curator is there to create a story between the artist and the public.
My idea was to start the exhibition with early works and end the exhibition with early works again. To create a circle – a circular kind of exhibition rather than a linear one – we start with the early works and we end again with an early work. Conceptually you start with a comfort zone, which is the kitchen and you end up with a healing zone, which is the pharmacy. That’s the beginning and the end and in between there is the art, which is something that will help you to heal in the process. This exhibition was a big retrospective, following up to the Tate show, and in this case we had the luxury to build a museum space around the exhibition. So it was a real privilege.
Conceptually you start with a comfort zone, which is the kitchen and you end with a healing zone, which is the pharmacy… in between there is the art, which is something that will help you to heal in the process.
It was interesting to see the people from the region during the opening night walking around with their traditional clothes surrounded by all this contemporary art. What kind of impact do you feel this exhibition had?
I think it was a very clear show. The pictures most of the time speak for themselves, with some help if you want to know more. They are very powerful pieces and the exhibition should be first a personal experience. I think if you go there with an open mind, you will get something out of it. Not everything you see you may like, but you will be definitely have a reaction. It’s not a provoking show in terms of production it’s a thought provocation. You go there and you come out with a different way of thinking and seeing things. I think this is what the show is about. People think Damien Hirst is a provocateur that he wants to provoke people. It’s not really the case. He addresses themes that are very down on the table and that every one can relate to.. love, life, beauty, fear, death, separation.. So those are issues that are there. The show is grandiose but it’s not bombastic. <Laughter>
People think Damien Hirst is a provocateur, that he wants to provoke people. It’s not really the case. He addresses themes that are very down on the table and that everyone can relate to.. love, life, beauty, fear, death, separation..
How has your experience been living here? What’s your opinion of art in the Middle East?
I know a few. I am not an expert. I have travelled to Lebanon. I have worked with Egyptian artists and other artists in the region. I think it’s a different context and we definitely are going to see more things happening in the future. I come from Italy and I have lived in America for thirty years. Damien Hirst and I are two endangered species. We are middle-aged, white, Caucasian artists. When I started working, there was no question that we were the center of the world, both in America and Europe. It started with the Soviet Union collapse, then the Asian geographical area changes, and now it’s the Middle East.. so we definitely have to readdress our way of viewing things. It’s no longer one straight line. There are different points of view.
Damien Hirst and I are two endangered species. We are middle-aged white Caucasian artists.
Do you think places like Qatar, Dubai, and Abu Dhabi are on the right track in the way they are promoting art?
In Qatar it’s interesting. I feel that Qatar wants to build a cultural structure with a focus on art education. Dubai and Abu Dhabi are importing the Guggenheims the Louvres… I think it’s more interesting here. It’s also comparative. At the Damien Hirst show in London we had 500,000 visitors but if you look at it in percentage of the population it’s not much different in Qatar probably there will be many more before the show closes but it’s close to 45000 visitors. If you look in percentage of the population it’s not much different.
I feel that Qatar wants to build a cultural structure with a focus on art education.
Would you like to do more shows in the Middle East?
Yes surely it’s a new audience of young people. When the audience is broad the reaction is not much different than anywhere else. You always find a small selection of people that are experts, which is a completely different conversation. Then you have others that have a variation of opinion. The problem is that a lot of people arrive with pre concept of assistance. Art is a tool for everybody you have to just go there and use it as you like. Some people go there for entertainment. Some people go there for curiosity. Some people go there out of boredom. Everyone has different reasons.. To go there just to criticize, I think is narrow-minded. What’s the point? It’s like going to a movie and keeping your eyes shut. Then don’t go to the movie if you don’t want to see. If you are going to see it, at least try to see.
Art is a tool for everybody.. you have to just go to the exhibition and use it as you like. Some people go there for entertainment. Some people go there for curiosity. Some people go there out of boredom. Everyone has different reasons..
You were part of a project that brought a celebrity artist from the west to the Middle East. What about taking some of the work here to the West.
If the artist is very good definitely yes sure but not just for the sake of bringing a Middle Eastern person to come here. The West and America are very jaded. We have been exposed to a lot of things in terms of contemporary art and have become a self referential world. The issue then is how to present someone and not to just show them as a hunting trophy. You don’t what to be the curator who brings a very exciting artist from India. The Western audience will completely dismiss it and the artist will suffer because despite what we think a lot of artists want to have an impact in New York or in London.
What is preventing Middle Eastern artist from entering that universal stage?
Contemporary art is a field that has universal rules. It’s a little like playing football. It’s a field where you can go and play in different ways but if it’s your own idea of the game then it doesn’t work. I think its not so easy to explain why it’s like this. You have to learn how to tell a story and the story has to be universal. Even if the artist talks about a local thing – a very small thing, they have to allow people to identify on the same level.
Contemporary art is a field that has universal rules. It’s a little like playing football. It’s a field where you can go and play in different ways but if it’s your own idea of the game, then it doesn’t work.
It can’t be folkloristic. It can’t be something that you bring back when you travel. It has to be like a chair that you sit on.. it needs to have a function. Art has to be a language that refers to your identity but at the same time creates a universal connection. If you have to be able to connect, to create a link. That’s why rock music has been so strong. Because people were able to connect. People who are in America or in Asia, they can connect through it. What is the secret, I don’t know. Somehow someone was able to create a language in music that did not need to be translated.
Art has to be a language that refers to your identity but at the same time creates a universal connection.
You know Italian artists have the same problem as Middle Eastern artist.. they come to New York and they bring these very poetic and very beautiful things but they remain very folkloristic and nothing more. You need to be able to talk to people in a language. It does not have to be the perfect language. It does not have to be the perfect English or the perfect French. If you come with a language that is so specific to your country then people will not connect.
You have to be open.. to be exposed. You have to be a sponge. If you are waterproof, you will never be an artist.
When I went to Shanghai, I met with some artists that spoke a language that I did not understand and they were very young. Their work was very much in sync with the mood but still was very Chinese. These people were living in a small apartment in Shanghai and probably had never travelled anywhere outside. You have to be open.. to be exposed. You have to be a sponge. If you are waterproof, you will never be an artist. You have to absorb a lot of things and bring them back in your way. Otherwise, it’s absolutely useless. You can travel as much as you want but you will never go anywhere.